We are all entitled to our own opinions, goes the old saw, but not to our own facts.
That was true up until around the 1960s or so, whereupon a variety of philosophers in major US universities, mostly French and led by Jacques Derrida, decided that we are, in fact, entitled to our own facts as well. Postmodernist “deconstructionism” began with the perfectly sensible and even banal observation that literature could not be discussed without acknowledging the cultural baggage of both author and reader, and that the meaning of a text was not something fixed and eternal but the product of the reader’s mind in conjuncttion with the author’s.
But its influence spread beyond literature, into other areas of study. As Barbara Ehrenreich put it, “Students taking courses in literature, film, ‘cultural studies’, and even, in some cases, anthropology and political science, were taught that the world is just a ‘text’ about which you can say anything you want, provided you say it murkily enough.” She claimed that one of her children reported you could be marked down for writing “reality” without putting it in inverted commas. According to Francis Wheen, in his fantastic book How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World, science and politics fell under this reality-denying spell: it became impossible to critique either, since they were fictions, “like truth, justice, law and all other linguistic ‘constructs’”. Michel Foucault, another of the great deconstructionists, went to Iran and fell in love with the “beauty” of its savage theocratic regime. Wheen reports that, when asked about the brutal repression of dissidents and free speech in the country, Foucault replied “They don’t have the same regime of truth as ours.”
Politics is one thing, but scientific fact, even, somehow got perverted in this strange twilight world. Luce Irigaray, another postmodernist, described E=mc2 as a “sexed equation”, which “privileges the speed of light over other [less masculine] speeds that are vitally necessary to us”, and blamed the failure of science to successfully model chaotic turbulence on the fact that “men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, [whereas] women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids”.
The nonsense of all this is obvious, or it should be. How fast an object accelerates under gravity does not change according to whether or not the observer is a man or a woman. If you add magnesium to hydrochloric acid you get magnesium chloride and hydrogen gas, regardless of which “regime of truth” you happen to live under. If you doubt the existence of facts of the world, ask yourself whether you’d be happy to establish your own reality by exiting an airliner at 30,000 feet and walking home.
I’m saying all this because the internet has got a bit excited over a technology writer – a technology writer, someone who writes about the products of science – who has “come out” in her column at Yahoo News as a creationist. Virginia Heffernan said that she was “considerably less amused and moved by the character-free Big Bang story (“something exploded”) than by the twisted and picturesque misadventures of Eve and Adam and Cain and Abel and Abraham”. She went on, quoting the Life of Pi author Yann Martel: “1) Life is a story. 2) You can choose your story. 3) A story with God is the better story.”
And, defending her article in a conversation on Twitter with the heroically patient science writer Carl Zimmer, she added: “I’m a creationist on aesthetic grounds. Why bludgeon me with ‘But evolution is TRUE’? Believe your good beliefs; they’re widely shared!”
I’m not going to debunk her utterly flatulent piece with its litany of non-sequiturs and logical fallacies. Others have done a better job of that than I could. But I am going to say that post-modernist “deconstruction”, the belief that we get to choose the reality we live in, is idiotic and harmful. It might be more aesthetically pleasing to you to think that Iranian dissidents aren’t oppressed, they’re just living under a different truth-regime which makes it OK to smash their ankles with hammers when they say things the ayatollahs don’t like. It might be more “amusing and moving” to you to hear a story in which a snake talks to a woman or a man flies on a winged horse than it is to read the careful breakdowns of why astrophysics points to a universe 13.8 billion years old, why the X-ray crystallography of genes, the geographic spread of species and comparative anatomy all point to the same history of evolution, why the heavy elements that make us and the Earth were created in supernovae billions of years ago. (Personally I find that all pretty moving, and utterly astonishing. But you are entitled to your opinions.) But your amusement does not make it true.
Humans evolved from a common ancestor with chimpanzees about 6.3 million years ago. A dozen strands of evidence point to this. How a grown-up can openly admit that they choose their facts on which ones they find more aesthetically pleasing I simply do not understand.